People have different understandings when it comes to sexuality—divergent frames of thinking, if you will. Consequently, for many, most of the traditional do’s and don’ts of sexual ethics make no sense. For example, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, infidelity in marriage has a 70% chance of ending the marriage in divorce. Cohabitation before marriage has a 83% chance of ending the marriage in divorce. “Trial marriage,” statistically, only equips one for divorce. Yet these are the kind of facts that go unheard for many people because of their frame of thinking.
People think first in pictures, or frames. If the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts bounce off and the frame stays. Most of the church’s talk about sexuality assumes a more traditional frame, but traditional facts no longer make sense to young people who have adopted a nontraditional frame.
“Trial marriage,” statistically, only equips one for divorce. Yet these are the kind of facts that go unheard.
Sociologist Steven Seidman explores these competing frames in his article, “Contesting the Moral Boundaries of Eros.” Americans, he writes, are divided between two different moral logics, or frames, when it comes to intimacy: “morality of the sex act,” and “communicative sexual ethic.” “In the former,” Seidman writes, “sex acquires a determinative moral and social meaning as part of a cosmology, which may be understood in the language of religion, natural law, or secular reason…. By contrast, a communicative sexual ethic assumes that sex acts have no inherent meaning but gain their moral coherence from their interactive context.”
In the first case, sex is a part of a larger cosmological world of meaning: it has an ontological basis in reality. As Mila Kunis commented in the film Friends With Benefits, “Having friends with benefits is a lot like communism. It works well in theory, but not so well in execution.” It’s a practice that is not aligned cosmologically with reality.
In the second, sex has no larger meaning beyond the consent of two participating adults. Here sexuality, though intrinsically embodied, is assumed to be disconnected from reality. It’s a choice that doesn’t touch the cosmos. The fact that sex is more like gravity is denied. Here sex has no larger “why.”
Evangelicals are really bad about talking about sex, if and when they ever do. And they are notoriously bad about reframing sexuality. We at Christians for Social Action wanted to see if this could be done successfully in our last New Copernican salon, “The Why of Sex.” It was our assumption that unless sexuality is first understood in a larger spiritual frame, none of the details about sexual ethics make any sense. As evangelicals, we tend to get caught up in a lot of the culture war, hot-button issues on sexuality and rarely get around to putting a compelling case forward for the larger framing question, the why of sexuality.
Christopher West, leading popularizer of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, led this salon. He told the story of a young couple, passionately in love, who were making out under the stars on the property of an aging Catholic priest. Hearing the commotion, the priest ventured out into the night only to come upon the lovemaking couple. Without judgment, he asked, “What does what you are doing here have to do with the stars?” He then turned and left the embarrassed, and now perplexed, couple. What does sexuality have to do with our destiny? West spoke for no more than five minutes before the program was turned over to interactive questions from the twenty-five or so students huddled together in the campus coffee shop.
At no time did the hour-long conversation get hung up on specific sexual ethics. Instead, students pondered—some for the first time—that sexual desire is among God’s strongest tool for evangelism, in that its ultimate purpose is to get us into a relationship with God. “God wants to marry us,” West explained. Sex and sexuality point the way to the deepest truths about reality—a reality where enjoyment, pleasure, and relationship are at its core. When we do not follow the sexual dots to God, as C.S. Lewis warns, we’ve been too easily pleased. At this salon, we didn’t try to answer all the questions, but to winsomely suggest a new frame through which to understand sexual relationships. Our bodies tell a larger story, a story that only makes sense against this larger reality: God wants to marry us.
John Seel is a consultant, writer, cultural analyst, and cultural renewal entrepreneur. He is the founder of John Seel Consulting LLC, a social impact consulting firm working with people and projects that foster human flourishing and the common good. The former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, he is a national expert on millennials and the New Copernicans. He has an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland (College Park). He and his wife, Kathryn, live in Lafayette Hill, PA. He directs the New Copernican Empowerment Dialogues at The Sider Center at Eastern University.